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Argentina’s Elections and the Falklands Dispute

President Kirchner votes. presidencia.gov.ar photo, via Wikimedia.

President Kirchner votes. presidencia.gov.ar photo, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

On November 22nd Argentines will go to the polls to elect a new president. This presidential runoff, which follows an inconclusive first round held on October 25th, marks the end of an era for Argentina. Since 2003 Argentina has been led by the husband and wife duo of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, with Cristina elected in 2007 and again in 2011. (Widely thought to aspire to return to the presidency, Néstor suffered an untimely death in 2010.) With Kirchner constitutionally barred from a third term, many hope the election of a new Argentine president is also an opportunity to wind down Kirchner’s aggressive rhetoric about the disputed Falkland Islands.

Argentina has long claimed the Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas and officially views British sovereignty as “a blatant exercise of 19th-Century colonialism,” in Kirchner’s words. Despite earlier tentative steps towards a negotiated solution to the dispute, in 1982 the Argentine military seized the Islands. In the midst of economic stagnation and its murderous “Dirty War” the ruling military junta hoped that a quick victory would boost the regime’s domestic popularity, but seriously misjudged UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s willingness to fight. As Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins write in their history The Battle for the Falklands, while the UK came far closer to military disaster than is often realized, British forces eventually retook the Falklands. The war left 225 British servicemen, three Falkland civilians, and around 650 Argentines dead, as well as thousands of soldiers scarred mentally and physically by the brutal conflict.

Throughout her tenure Cristina Kirchner has stressed the Falklands issue, arguing that the UK illegally took possession of the Islands in 1833. Kirchner has repeatedly called for dialogue over the Islands’ status in her UN addresses (though not this year), and tied the issue to UN Security Council reform (though Argentina opposes fellow Mercosur member Brazil’s bid for a permanent UNSC seat). In 2012 Kirchner “ambushed” British PM David Cameron at the UN with a letter about the issue, and two years later Kirchner commemorated the 32nd anniversary of Argentina’s invasion by introducing a new banknote featuring a map of the Falklands. The recent discovery of oil off the Falklands also gave new impetus to Argentina’s push, and Argentina has threatened to sue British oil companies involved in exploration off the Islands – despite the fact that low oil prices are challenging the offshore oil’s commercial viability.

Map by the CIA World Factbook.

Map by the CIA World Factbook.

The ongoing presidential election has centered around economic issues and the legacy of Kirchnerismo, as Kevin Lees chronicles, and despite leaving office Kirchner is expected to remain politically powerful, as Simon Romero and Jonathan Gilbert write. (Indeed, Kirchner is thought to hope to return to the presidency in 2019). But as the Week reports, both of the candidates competing in the runoff election have taken comparatively moderate stances on the Falklands. While insisting that the Islands are rightly Argentina’s, opposition center-right candidate and current Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri wants to improve relations with the UK and “has also signalled that he would abolish the government role of Falklands Secretary, or Malvinas Secretary, created by Kirchner in 2013.” Similarly, the Independent’s David Usborne reports that Kirchner’s preferred successor and Buenos Aires province governor Daniel Scioli, who narrowly won the first round, is also expected to “seek to adopt a fresh and less belligerent tone in the hope of bringing Britain to the table.” Despite the wide enthusiasm for the Malvinas cause in Argentina, some see Kirchner’s combativeness as counterproductive, as Usborne’s excellent story notes. “Everyone has the sensation that Argentina gets into these quarrels for no reason … and that’s true with the Malvinas,” says Marcos Novaro, an Argentine think tank director quoted by Usborne. Others disagree, and acknowledge that there little room for mutual reconciliation between Argentina and the UK regardless of Kirchner’s rhetoric.

Whatever their reasons, Macri and Scioli’s apparent moderation is a recognition of reality. After the Falkland Islanders overwhelmingly approved continued British sovereignty in a 2013 referendum it is difficult to see any hope for a diplomatic agreement that meaningfully cedes sovereignty to Argentina — though it was the invasion more than anything else that hardened the British position. For its part, Argentina views the “imported” Islanders’ self-determination as irrelevant.

But beyond diplomatic considerations, Argentina’s lack of diplomatic leverage is compounded by its limited ability to militarily threaten the Islands today. Decades of financial crises have left Argentine military forces decrepit: its aircraft are “barely serviceable” and as of at least 2012 the Navy’s submarines rarely went to sea, falling far short of their required training time. Argentina has vague plans to refurbish its decaying Air Force with new jet fighters but the government’s financial challenges mean that any purchase is likely a way off,* and the UK has the ability to veto most Western fighter sales. These financial challenges are compounded by the low priority Argentina’s civilian leaders assign the military. As a 2014 report by Rowan Allport notes, Kirchner’s “nationalistic tone should not be interpreted as a pro-military stance,” and “the Nestor/Cristina Kirchner era has seen the military fall to near the bottom of Argentina’s spending priorities list.”

However, budget cuts have curtailed Britain’s military capabilities as well, and raised fears that the UK could not longer retake the Falklands. The number of British combat-ready aircraft is falling, and today the UK does not operate an aircraft carrier able to embark fixed-wing aircraft, which would be critical in any renewed conflict over the Falklands. This absence “creates a window of opportunity for Argentina,” in Defense Industry Daily’s words, but “one that will slam shut decisively around 2020” when the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers enter service, though when the ships’ advanced F-35B fighter aircraft will actually be reliably combat-ready is uncertain. However, the UK’s nuclear fast attack submarines would already complicate any Argentine effort to take and hold the Falklands, and would quickly isolate any Argentine invasion force. Indeed, during the Falklands War after a British submarine sank the cruiser ARA General Belgrano Argentina kept its single carrier, the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, in port, forcing land-based Argentine fighter aircraft to fight at the very limit of their range. The RAF also bases a handful of advanced fighter aircraft on the Falklands, another major barrier to a successful invasion.

Despite Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s unstable style of governance she did not choose to resume hostilities, which now seem even more unlikely through 2019. In addition to Argentina’s military weaknesses, recently events have also dramatically illustrated the downsides of even nearly bloodless territorial annexation. From a military standpoint Russia’s seizure of Crimea was a complete success, but drew widespread condemnation and economic sanctions that have severely damaged the Russian economy. While the two cases are not directly comparable – many of Argentina’s major trading partners would not impose retaliatory sanctions – an invasion’s best possible outcome could still bring diplomatic and economic costs not worth the gain. Pressing the Islas Malvinas issue may be a useful political tool – and a sincere grievance for many Argentines – but its use rests far more on the personality and priorities of Argentina’s president than the actual chances of realizing Argentina’s claim.

*Update (11/10/2015): UK Defense Journal (via Jeremiah Cushman) and Flight Global are reporting that Argentina will soon sign a contract to purchase 14 Kfir fighters from Israel.

Update (11/18/2015): Or maybe not – according to MercoPress (originally via Defesa Aérea & Naval) Clarin reports that the Kfir deal has been frozen, and that there is disagreement among senior Argentine Air Force officers over the aircraft, most of which reportedly are not equipped with radar.

The Future of the British Nuclear Force

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Flickr user See Li, via Wikimedia.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Flickr user See Li, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the leader of the United Kingdom’s opposition Labour Party has drawn renewed attention to the future of Britain’s nuclear force. Corbyn has often spoken out against replacing the UK’s four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which together with their Trident II nuclear missiles are commonly referred to simply as “Trident.” Since nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines are difficult to detect when submerged, if at least one submarine is always at sea a surprise attack on Britain could be answered by a retaliatory nuclear strike. This “second-strike capability,” in the parlance of nuclear strategy, is a powerful deterrent.

TheVanguard class is expected to leave service in the next decade; if they are not replaced and other upgrades not made, the UK’s nuclear force will most likely be retired. Corbyn’s recent “Defense Diversification” platform calls for “transitioning away from nuclear weapons” while protecting defense workers’ employment and “freeing resources for investment in other socially-useful forms of public spending” (via the Guardian). Proponents of Trident counter that, in addition to protecting high-paying defense industry jobs, despite its tight-knit alliances with the nuclear-armed US and France British security can only be guaranteed by an independent nuclear deterrent force under British control.

Corbyn may never become Prime Minister, his anti-Trident views are not universal within the Labour Party (Corbyn recently stated he would not resign if a party policy review favors retaining nuclear weapon; a hostile Dan Hodges notes the difficulty of ‘squaring the circle’ of a party which supports nuclear weapons and a presumptive PM who appears unwilling to ever using them), and the UK’s governing Conservatives are likely to see a Trident replacement passed in 2016, as Corbyn’s platform acknowledges.

But this does not mean that the long process to replace Trident will proceed as planned, as there are many arguments against maintaining Britain’s nuclear force. Most obviously, despite renewed tensions between NATO and Russia the extent to which the UK’s expensive nuclear deterrent actually contributes to British security is unclear, especially given the UK’s close relationship with the nuclear-armed US. The Scottish National Party is also wary of the nuclear force, which is based in Scotland.

Arguably, the threat of Russian aggression paradoxically strengthens the argument for retiring the UK’s nuclear weapons. The British defense budget is finite, and every pound that the UK spends on nuclear weapons is a pound that cannot be spent on the conventional forces relevant to countering Russia’s inching “hybrid warfare” aggression. Prompted by reports that US policymakers have encouraged the UK retire its nuclear force in favor of capabilities that can actually fight and practically support US forces, in 2013 Jarrod Hayes questioned whether costs, not moral objections, might herald the end of nuclear weapons. “The crux of the issue is the assessment by the US that the UK cannot afford to have conventional capabilities sufficient to allow the UK to be a full military partner and submarine-deployed nuclear weapons,” Hayes wrote. Given that the looming need to replace the Trident system is expected to amount to a decade-long 9-10% cut in the UK’s annual defense budget (if it is funded through the Ministry of Defense rather than the Treasury) this question is especially pressing.

The UK would not be the first state to give up its own nuclear weapons: the apartheid South African regime successfully developed a number of nuclear devices, only to voluntarily dismantle them on the eve of democratization.* But retiring Britain’s nuclear force would be unprecedented. In contrast to a half dozen crude nuclear bombs developed by an increasingly-isolated South Africa, the UK is a recognized nuclear-armed state under the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, has fielded nuclear weapons for decades, and has heavily invested in survivable, second strike-capable nuclear missile submarines. Perhaps no less importantly, the UK is a major diplomatic, economic, and military power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. All other permanent UNSC members – China, France, Russia, and the United States – are nuclear weapons states.

Vanguard-class submarine. Photo by CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald - Defence Imagery, via Wikimedia.

Vanguard-class submarine. Photo by CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald – Defence Imagery, via Wikimedia.

Other states have turned away from developing nuclear weapons when they arguably had the option of doing so. Japan is widely thought to refrain from fielding nuclear weapons for political reasons, with the ability to assemble weapons should this policy change. Among others, states like Australia, Argentina, and Brazil all abandoned nascent nuclear weapons programs when their financial and diplomatic costs were judged to outweigh any eventual benefits. But there is a clear difference – perhaps expressed through loss aversion – between deciding not to develop nuclear weapons and giving up a formidable nuclear force. In particular, even if the British public and defense and political establishments accept the argument that the UK nuclear force’s contributions to British security is outweighed by its costs, retiring nuclear weapons would mean giving up an iconic status symbol. In Chris Walsh’s words, detonating Britain’s first nuclear bomb “marked its return to the club of great powers.” Is today’s UK prepared to risk losing any prestige nuclear status brings?

Hayes offered one answer, suggesting that “the rising cost and sophistication of modern weapons systems implies that nuclear weapons are no longer the hallmark of a great power, but instead the ability to field very expensive major conventional weapons systems that can be used in combat.” The point of these status symbols is that they are proxies for military power and, more remotely, other measures of national strength. Despite the nuclear status of all permanent UNSC members, John Mueller has argued in Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to al-Qaeda that some states and their populations do not seem to view nuclear weapons as desirable status symbols. Today it’s arguable that aircraft carriers, not nuclear weapons, better reflect the ability to project power and win the wars that actually happen. Notably, the UK’s two highly-capable (though not comparable to US nuclear-powered supercarriers) Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are currently under construction.

It may seem ridiculous to think that a state with a leading global role like the UK would ever give up nuclear weapons. But it is important to remember that other military status symbols have fallen out of fashion in ways that would have seemed doubtful at the time. Battleships were once a preeminent symbol of national power that aspirant states went to great lengths to field. Today, they are relics of history.

Of course, these two cases are not directly comparable. Nuclear weapons remain the ultimate means of deterrence, while airpower rendered battleships obsolete. Despite these differences, the point is that the value of military status symbols – what is and is not the hallmark of a respected state – can change in unexpected ways. If arguments in favor of retaining the UK’s nuclear force are motivated in part by their prestige — Tony Blair once wrote that retiring Trident would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation,” Richard Norton-Taylor relays — then the calculus of prestige and deterrence versus cost could similarly change.

*Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all chose to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited after the breakup of the USSR.

Rational Causes of War in the South Atlantic

1982 Argentine magazine, via Wikimedia.

“We’re Winning.” 1982 Argentine magazine, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is once again making noise over the Falklands dispute. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the unresolved dispute over the islands is once again causing diplomatic trouble — recent petroleum exploration around the islands has raised the stakes of the conflict — but the real takeaway is that the status of las Islas Malvinas continues to draw popular ire among Argentines.

Jorge Luis Borges famously described the Falklands War as “a fight between two bald men over a comb.” Borges’ comment pithily summarizes the perceived futility of the war, but frivolously dismisses the conflict’s real impetus — states may fight over worthless territories, but they rarely do so for irrational reasons. The 1976 Argentine military junta initiated the war not in an irrational grab for the harsh islands themselves, but instead in a reasonably-sophisticated bid to legitimize their unpopular government through a popular military victory the war’s architects judged readily attainable. That fact that the junta’s initial assumptions about the UK’s commitment to defend the islands were wildly inaccurate does not mean, in and of itself, that the war decision was irrational.This explanation for the 1982 war suggests that renewed conflict over the islands is unlikely.

Las Islas Malvinas command a unique place in popular Argentine thought. Among Argentines, the sentiment that the Falklands rightly belong to them and that the status quo is an unjust colonial holdover is widespread. In this framework — that identifies the British claim to the Falklands as nothing more than open colonialism — the islanders’ desire to remain part of the UK is irrelevant; the very fact British people live there at all is an injustice. I’ve spent only a brief time in Argentina, but vividly remember noticing a cartoon map of the country, part of a corporate logo, that included the islands. Even in this trivial context, las Islas Malvinas are Argentine.

The Argentine junta’s 1976 overthrow of the Isabel Perón civilian government was intended to facilitate the remaking of Argentine society and force an end to the country’s historic liberal-conservative conflict. But the junta’s frustrated inability to usher in stability and clearly unsustainable brutality of the Dirty War made their rule increasingly untenable, and the invasion was a last-ditch effort to bolster the junta’s popularity. Allusions to combs and bald men aside, the Falklands conflict was never about territory itself; instead, it was fought over the symbolic value of the islands’ sovereignty. The junta saw themselves as the defenders of Argentine society. Facing the prospect of the overthrow of their regime, the potential legitimizing payoff of a successful invasion of the islands made war a reasonable choice.

Importantly, the Falklands was not the junta’s only prospective legitimizing victory. Argentina’s military government had long-standing territorial disputes with Chile, where Pinochet actually encouraged settlement of the country’s harsh south out of the fear that Argentina would sieze the sparsly populated territory. But despite almost going war with Chile over disputed and geopolitically important Beagle Channel islands in 1978, the Argentine junta only escalated a territorial conflict to war in 1982, when they faced a severe domestic legitimacy crisis. In Argentina’s zero-sum political climate of the early 1980s, a face-saving military victory would salvage the critically unpopular military government’s rule. Of course, the conflict had the opposite outcome, but at the time the invasion was a reasonable bet.

Today fears of renewed conflict are mostly based on this populist logic: as long as an Argentine government perceives itself as domestically unpopular, so the thinking goes, stoking nationalist sentiments over the islands will be a tempting policy. But the belief that the Argentine government’s behavior is governed by a rational cost-benefit logic suggests that actual war over the islands is unlikely. Yes, Argentina’s continued economic downturn and erratic growth both reward populistic nationalism and increase the appeal of offshore energy exploration. But the current government faces nowhere near the legitimacy crisis that prompted the junta’s decision to invade in 1982. The Falklands War was a desperate act launched by a domestically embattled government that associated its own legitimacy with national survival. That is not true today. Rather than the culmination of a century of left-right conflict, today’s Argentine government is comparably unexceptional. The modern Argentine government is also aware that the expected costs of conflict would be greater than it judged in the days before the 1982 invasion. Despite the British armed forces’ shrinkage since the 1980s, the 1982 war is evidence that the UK is willing to fight over the islands, while the junta’s war plans were benchmarked around the assumption that Britain would not contest the invasion. Given the lower domestic incentive and higher expected costs of conflict today, a rational choice for war is unlikely.

Making diplomatic noise over the Falklands question is a low-risk strategy for bolstering the Argentine government’s domestic popularity, and it is unsurprising that President Kirchner continue to press the issue. But this does not mean that renewed war is likely.

Note: This post has been edited for clarity.